Keeping it Real

It was way back in October 2003. Everyone was talking about the Cubs-Red Sox series that never happened. It was around the same time that U.S. deaths during the occupation of Iraq exceeded those suffered during the conquest. So the real historic event of the month may have passed you by. It was in the week of October 9 that, for the first time in history, the top 10 singles on the Billboard pop music chart were all recorded by African-American artists, nine of them rappers.

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips died the month before, so he may or may not have heard the news. And that’s too bad, because the final, complete triumph of African-American music in U.S. culture represented the fruition of a pop cultural process that Phillips helped set in motion more than 50 years ago. Phillips grew up in north Alabama, working in the cotton fields alongside his black neighbors and other poor whites like himself. In the early ’50s, he came to Memphis convinced of two revolutionary facts: that black people and poor white people were equal to each other, and to anyone else, and that black music was one of the highest forms of artistic expression in all of human history. Along the way, Phillips also conceived a suspicion that broad, mass exposure of black music to white audiences might do something to improve race relations in the society at large.

Those ideas led him to start a recording studio that, for several years, specialized in Delta blues and the emerging forms of urban rhythm and blues. He recorded Howling Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, and dozens of others. And he began his storied quest for "a white man with the Negro feel" who could break down America’s racial barriers and, yes, "make a million dollars."

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Sojourners Magazine February 2004
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